Posts Tagged ‘talking ATM’

The ‘Talking ATM’ Is My Invisible Dream Machine.

April 30, 2009

A twitter message alerted me to a milestone I surely didn’t care about a decade ago, but really appreciate now. This post explains how easy it is to use a Talking ATM. People with vision impairment might want to try out this hard-won disability service if not already users. Sighted people can gain insight and direct experience with the convenience of talking interfaces. But, hey, why shouldn’t every device talk like this?

The Milestone: 10 years of the Talking ATM

The history is well told in commemorative articles published in 2003. References below.
Pressure from blind individuals and advocacy organizations circa 2000, with the help of structured negotiators (lawyers), led banks to design and roll out Automated Teller Machines equipped with speech. Recorded audio wav files were replaced by synthetic voices that read instructions and lead the customer through a menu of transactions.

first, I’ll relate my experience and then extrapolate on broader technology and social issues.

My Talking ATM Story


As my vision slid away in 2006, I could no longer translate the wobbly lines and button labels on my ATM screen to comfortably perform routine cash withdrawals. Indeed, on one fateful Sunday afternoon I inserted my card, then noticed an unfamiliar pattern on the screen. Calling in my teenage driver, we noticed several handwritten notes indicating lost cards in the past hour. I had just enough cash in hand to make it through a Monday trip out of town, and immediately called the bank upon return Tuesday. A series of frustrating interactions ensued, like my ATM card could only be replaced by my coming in to enter a new PIN. But how was I to get to the office without a driver or cab fare when I was out of cash?


This seemed like a good time to familiarize myself with audio ATM functions, to lessen risk of having another card gobbled by a temporarily malfunctioning station. With lingering bad feelings about the branch of the Sunday fiasco, I recalled better experience at a different office after my six month saga on reversal of mortgage over-payment. Lesson learned—never put an extra 0 in a $ box and always listen or look carefully at verification totals.


I strolled into the quiet office and asked customer service to explain the audio teller operations. The pleasant service person whipped out a big headset and we headed out to the ATM station. Oddly, most stations are located in office alcoves or external walls. This one was outside the drive-by window to be shared by pedestrian and automotive customers.
ok, waiting for traffic to clear, we went through a good intro. I wasn’t as familiar with audio interfaces at that point in my Vision Loser life but I eventually worked up courage in the next few weeks to tackle the ATM myself with my own ear buds.


Well, 3 years later, I’m a pro and can get my fast cash in under a minute, unless my ear buds get tangled or I drop my cane. First problem is figuring out how to get in line, like standing behind a truck’s exhaust or walking out before a monster SUV. Usually I hang back, looking into the often dry bed of Granite Creek until the line is empty. Next step is to stand my white cane in a corner of the ATM column, feel around for the audio opening hidden in a ridged region, wait for the voice to indicate the station is live, shove in my card, and ready to roll. The voice, probably Eloquence, usually drones into a “Please listen carefully as the instructions have changed…”. Shut up, this will only take a minute and I don’t need to change volume or speed. Enter, type PIN, retype PIN if commonly hit a wrong key, and on to Main Menu (thinking of ACB Radio’s Technology jingle). 6 button down to Fast Cash, on by 20,…100,…, confirm and click, chug comes cash, receipt, and release of card. Gather up receipt, card, cane, and — important — remove ear buds, and I’m on my way.


Occasionally things go wrong. Recently, my receipt didn’t appear and customer service rep and I did a balance request and out spat two receipts, both mine. Kind of nerve wracking as somebody else could have intervened and learned of my great wealth. The customer service rep vowed to call in maintenance on the ATM, but I bet a few more receipts got wadded up that afternoon. Electro-mechanical failures often foil sophisticated software.


Another time, I finished my Fast Cash and waited for card release only to be given a “have we got a good deal for you” long-winded offer of a credit card. I wasn’t sure how to cancel out and still get my ATM card back. since I lecture family on the evils of the credit card, I was fuming at a double punishment. Complaining to the customer service rep inside, I learned sighted people were also not thrilled at this extra imposed step.


Now, to reveal the identity of the ATM, it’s Chase Bank, formerly Bank One, on Gurley Street near the historic Whisky Row of downtown Prescott AZ.
Although I haven’t performed any complex ATM interactions, it’s fair to say I’m a satisfied user and would not hesitate to recommend this to anyone with good hearing unafraid to perform transactions with engines and radios and cell conversations roaring all around. An indoor ATM would be a good step someday but, hey, this is a conservative town, not particularly pedestrian friendly. Mainly I appreciate that I can get my cash as part of a routine just like other people and I don’t even use up extra gasoline waiting in line.

Broader Issues of Talking Transactions

Does the ATM voice induce Synthetic Voice Shock?

I coined the term in Synthetic Voice Shock Reverberates Across the Divides to explain responses I heard about voices offered in assistive technologies to overcome vision loss. Personally, I hated Eloquence when I first heard it demonstrated but I rapidly grew to love my Precise Paul and friends as I realized that (1) the voices really were understandable and (2) I didn’t have any choice if I wanted to keep reading. I now wonder how people like me, slowly losing vision while off the rehab grid, learn about Talking ATM and related services. It hurts to think people give up that one step of independence from not knowing whom to ask or even if such services exist. And supposing someone does step up to an ATM ready to listen, are they tuned in to hearing synthetic speech sufficiently to make an informed choice whether the Talking Teller is an appropriate service for them? Did the Disability Rights movement fight through a decade only to have a generation of drop-outs from oldsters with difficulty adjusting to vision loss, a panoply of technology, and no-longer-young nerves?

Are Audio E-voting and Talking ATM’s Close Cousins?

I have described my experiences in 2008 voting without viewing. The voting device is a keypad like offered by the ATM I use while the voice is a combination of human narrated candidate and race announcements interspersed with synthetic speech instructions and navigation. I found this mode of voting satisfying, compared with having someone read the ballot to and mark for me. However, even my well-attuned ears and fingers seemed to get in trouble with speech speedup and slowdown, which I blame on poor interaction design. Note that many ATM and voting systems have origins in the NCR and Die bold product lines so usability and accessibility research lessons should carry over.

Why aren’t all check-out services as easy as banking?


I buy something at a store and then have a hassle at check-out finding a box on a screen or buttons I cannot see for typing in a debit card PIN. I’ve never understood why I can give a credit card number over a phone without signing but must sign if I swipe it on checkout. And giving a PIN to a family member or stranger isn’t good practice. Sometimes check-out can get really nasty as when a checker wouldn’t let me through because my debit card swiper was only age 20 – it’s my debit card, my groceries, my wine, and I’ll show you a social security age ID card. Geez, now we’re nervous every time we check out a Safeway since Aunt Susan has a short fuse after a tiring shopping session. If only the Point of sale thing talked and had tactile forms of PIN entry. I ask Safeway when accessible check-out will be possible and let them know the store has a visually impaired regular shopper.

Is audio interaction a literacy issue?


We are actually on track to a world where everything talks: microwave ovens, cards, color tellers, security systems, thermostats, etc. Text to speech is a commodity additional feature to onboard processors in digital devices. Indeed, we can hope this feature slips out of the aura of assistive technology into the main stream to enlarge the range of products and capabilities available to everybody. Why shouldn’t manuals be built in to the device, especially since the device is soon after purchase separated forever from its printed material? Why shouldn’t diagnostics be integrated with speech rather than provided on bitty screens hard to read for everybody? How about making screens the add-on features with audio as the main output channel?


Let’s generalize here and suggest the need for a simple training module to help people with recent vision loss get accustomed to working keypads accompanied by synthetic speech. Who could offer such training? I asked around at the CSUN exhibits and haven’t yet found an answer. There are multiple stages here, like producing a book and then distributing to end users via libraries or rehab services. My experience is that social services are hard enough to find and often more available to people who have already suspended independent activities.


The outreach problem is real. Finally, I’d like to express my appreciation to the activists, educators, and lawyers who convinced banking organizations and continue to work on retailers to make my “money moments” conventional and un stressful. The “talking ATM” shows what is possible not only for business but also for the broader opportunities sketched out above. Let all devices talk, I wish.

References on Talking ATMs

  1. Background and excellent overview compiled by Disability Civil Rights Attorney Lainey Feingold>

  2. Blind Cool Tech demos of talking devices

  3. Talking ATM on wikipedia

  4. Swedish choice of Acapella voices for ATMs for more modern sounding speech. Demos available on website.


  5. Chase bank and Access Technologies ATM collaboration


  6. (PDF) 2003 case study of Talking ATM upgrades
    . Bundled features with speech included better encryption and streamlined statement viewing.


  7. The electronic ‘curb cuts’ effect
    by Steve Jacobs


  8. Portfolio of talking information
    based on ATT technology

  9. ‘What to do when you meet a sighted person’ (parody)

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